Ash 4

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Karla was the first to regain sight, though a tremendous ringing filled her ears. Even the two flyers were reeling, their craft having stalled as they drifted over the towers. Losing altitude.

“Hangar,” she tried to say, but it came out as a croak.

She could land them. Could land them right now. Pilots from Rust Town who flew for the sphere always had somebody on the ground, some loved one making sure their landing strip was clear. They flew heedless of their lack of any similar assistance on the other end.

Well, she wasn’t going to let her friends go without a landing control. Not when they’d been so kind to her, put themselves at so much risk to do it.

If she could just move her damn arms!

The Raven prototype was nearly clear of the upper citadel. Soon it would be out of reach. With all this wind and rain they’d never hear anything.

She forced all her terror into one last desperate shout.

“Hangar!”

***

It was Griffin who heard the shout, although he was distracted by treading air. Aside from buoying his craft on its vertical surge through the sky, the air in front of the Ash Cloud was easier to steer in–as though he were just paddling his arms in a thick molasses sludge. But even that couldn’t keep him and Jenny still forever.

He wasted no time. “Karla says there’s a hangar!”

“Where?” Sweat was mingling with the rain on Jenny’s brow. In one heartstopping look, Griffin remembered she was twelve.

I will protect you, he vowed. Just like that time before.

They banked to port. Griffin stole another look at Karla. The Harpooneer was gasping, winded, seemingly only able to look one way–and not at all the scattered, shattered bones of the horrific thing Jenny had blown up.

At the scattered, broken form of a boy. Kio.

***

He’s gone, Karla thought. She thought that she would know for certain when this happened, that their close bond at least entitled her to some sort of message. Yet there was nothing. Just the storm and the rain.

Then he twitched. Opened one eye to look at her.

And she did feel something–a surge of warm energy that threw off the cold of the storm and sent her limbs just enough strength to move.

One move begat another. Karla was on her feet.

***

“She’s pointing!” Griffin called to Jenny. “Hard port!”

Perfectly in sync, they arced around the castle, leaving the Ash Cloud astern. The wind at their back felt like a hand of terrible destiny pressing Griff onward. Through his mask and the greening air he saw the facets of the flying castle slide past: the swaths of moss glowing bright against the dark, the stout vines, a crown on top that looked like a water catchment system by way of a child’s tree fort.

Did they really build all of this?

They rushed out of sight of Karla. Jenny pointed out the hangar at the same time Griffin noticed it.

Coming around the corner of the floating isle, hurtling to cut them off, were the rest of the skeletal monsters.

“Come on!” Griffin shouted, angling toward the open sides of the expansive empty room hanging off the bottom end of the sphere. “They can’t follow us in there–the opening’s too small!”

***

“Karla, wait!” Kio nearly went feline again before taking several seconds to get his vision of the black room under control. “You can’t let them go there!”

“What?” Karla shouted. They ran toward each other around the rim, skidding, grabbing hands to keep from falling down.

“Don’t send them to the hangar,” Kio said. “Don’t let them land there, it’s not safe.”

“Nowhere’s safe. They’ll be safer there than in the sky.”

“No,” Kio shook his head. “Raptor’s still there!”

Karla swore.

The green light from the Ash Cloud shone on her face. A shadow passed over it, then another.

They were being swarmed by Neogah.

***

The landing was easy. They had nobody clearing the airstrip, sure, but there was a lot of airstrip, and nobody to get in the way. Or rather, the person planning to get in the way preferred to allow them to land first.

Jenny and Griffin braked hard, throwing out their ornithopter’s wings to present a broad surface area. The drag caught them, whipping them back to drift through the hangar’s open wall. Beyond was an expanse of the grey-brown stone the whole castle was built out of, with strange marks gouged into the floor.

The dragons circled behind them, unable to enter just as her uncle had predicted. Jenny winced as her feet hit the floor, but ran alongside Griff, tapping out a safe landing as they skidded to a halt.

Her torso and arms burned from the harness. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been holding herself aloft, fighting for her life. As hastily as she would have if she’d crash-landed in the ocean again, she unbuckled it with fumbling fingers, and took her first steps on the Sphere.

Jenny’s entire body coursed with a thrill. We’re actually here! The castle all around her was real, solid, her parents’ dream and her uncle’s and her own summoned out of the ethereal world.

She leapt clear of the harness. Damn the dragons. “We’re here!” she shouted.

“Yes,” Dr. Griffin said, not sounding excited. When she turned to him, she founding him staring upward.

At a lift descending from a room in the ceiling, carrying a black-cloaked man who was smiling as though they’d both just finished telling an excellent joke.

***

Karla watched Kio’s face: green from the air, but stoic otherwise. His tattoo seemed a barrier against the world now, a holding of his own unique self against the void. This far, it said. No farther.

The Neogah formed up: four of them now.

Kio said, “We’re going to die.”

Karla said, “Not while we’re together.”

It was all so stupid it hurt to think about. How had they ever countenanced behaving in such a way? Yelling and shrieking about lies and secrets–if they could have talked rationally about them at the beginning, they could have done so now. A promise held. It could repair itself each time it broke, as long as the people who made it were willing, and deserving. It was a beautiful thing.

“Ready to fight?” she asked.

He swallowed. “I’m ready to run.”

“All right,” she told him with a smile. “We can do both.”

That was the last thing she said before the Neogah swooped in. In four sets of talons, two of them each gripped Karla and Kio, and held fast even as they shifted forms as violently and quickly as they could.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

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Ash 3

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“Did you see that?”

Jenny really hoped Griffin’s answer was going to be yes. Her arms were burning, her breath was coming short even through the gas mask, and she was starting to worry her co-pilot was going to bail and start a civil war in an effort to point Raven toward land.

But when Griffin nodded, his eyes were excited above his own mask. His gaze fixed on the forward face of the castle, the one pointing away from the Ash Cloud–where a waterfall had burst forth from nowhere. Rivulets were still winding their way down the turrets and falling out into the sky.

“Do you think that’s her?” she asked.

“I think that’s them,” Griffin replied. “Karla and Kio. It sounds like the sort of thing she said they were able to do together.”

They flew a circular path before the castle to stay within sight of the newly-created weak spot. Jenny tried to bring the corkscrew closer: whenever they flew far from the castle, breathing got even harder, and she suspected that had more to do with oxygen levels at massive elevation than with any sort of deadly cloud.

“I think we have our landing strip!” Griffin yelled.

“Right-ho!” Jenny cried. Together, they turned toward the castle. For a brief second, Jenny’s hand brushed the other, heavier shape in her flight bag.

Kio shifted immediately. It was amazing how easy it had become–as though for days, a storm of heightened emotion had been building in him, and now he just needed to reach down and pluck whatever he needed.

He needed speed. His clunky human body was great at reading books and fixing things and sometimes even making plans. But it was also great at having way too much surface area to fit into a talon, and not nearly enough swiftness to distract Medwick from looking at Karla.

For the dragon only seemed to have eyes for her.

Medwick milked his entrance for only a second longer, pounding his wings to hover in place. Then he dove for Karla. “You are my fated nuisance,” he shouted, “princess Harpooneer!”

Karla was ready for him. Kio, yowling frantically to draw attention, saw a kitchen knife flash into her right hand, then slash through a piece of rope to leave a clean coil behind. Karla whipped the end of the cord through the air.

She’d cut the pulley-rope free for a weapon. We’ll be forever rebalancing that lift, Kio thought absurdly, then charged toward her.

Karla faked sideways, throwing the end of the rope at Medwick, trying to tangle his joints. She only succeeded in dodging, forcing the dragon priest to fake between towers. “Who are you?” she shouted at his retreating leg-tangle. “Who’s Raptor? What does he have on you?”

The clacking reply sounded from behind the tower: “He created me!”

***

Karla fumbled reeling in the rope. The end of it came back damp from the rain, which gave her an idea–one she could barely focus on over the strangeness of Medwick’s words.

“What do you mean he created you?” she shouted around the tower. Her fingers, of their own accord, began to knot the end of the rope. On the other rim of the basin, cat-Kio was dashing back and forth, still trying to get Medwick to notice him.

The dragon surged around the opposite corner of the tower, and Karla wasted no time whipping the rope at his skull. Medwick’s talons gripped the stone and he skidded around Karla. Their dance began again, as though only moments separated them from their deadly duel in the kitchen.

“Our kind,” Medwick said, “have no names. No titles, no property, no selves. Raptor named me, just like he named the Rokhshan.”

“Your kind?” Karla asked. “The people from the sky kingdom?”

His tail smashed against the ground, forcing her to leap aside and go skidding down into the now-empty basin. “You understand so little.”

“Tell me!” she begged. “Tell the big bad Harpooneer what you really want, and we might be able to understand each other. If you go on like this, we’ll just fight until there’s nothing left!”

“You are wrong!” Medwick roared. “There will be Nashido! With no Rokhshan or Harpooneers left, this castle will still be all we need!”

His claws gripped the edge of the basin. Karla raised the end of her rope that she’d knotted into a club.

Kio howled.

That was when Medwick noticed him.

***

Jenny noticed the cat too. Even in the stormy, sickly-green, poison-wracked night, the little black blur was a revelation. She held her course as it sprang onto the dragon-thing’s claw, then leapt to its wing, scampering up to its spine.

She snarled in frustration. What was it doing? Fighting what was clearly the bad guy, sure, but she couldn’t use her secret weapon with a good guy in the vicinity…

They passed by so high that Jenny barely noticed Karla in the big bowl on top of the castle–and Karla didn’t see them at all. Suddenly Dr. Griffin let go of the bar to grab her arm.

“What is that?” he asked, pointing at the object in her left hand. Raven skimmed across the top of a tower.

Jenny swore in her head. No time. She turned her mask to her uncle, and showed him the cylinder. “You remember how the City Council had those bombs?”

“You took one?”

“They were just sitting there on a table, nobody was guarding them!”

“They?”

“I took three. Not one.”

“You–” Griffin literlly spluttered. “And you’re keeping them in the same bag!?”

Despite the desperation of their situation–hanging in the poison sky as virtual prisoners of heavily-armed skeleton dragons–Uncle Griff found time to get upset about her mishandling of materials. Though she conceded it made sense to spare extra time for explosives.

But it was not a gift they could afford to question. Jenny leaned all her weight to port. “Turn us around!”

“You have an idea?”

“I have a bomb!”

***

“For too long,” Medwick clawed at them both, “I have watched you two make a mess of our castle. I’ve watched you ruin its beauty with your machines and your daydreams of some pathetic destiny as a surface sheepherder. No more!”

Above him, Karla saw the winged shape pass, saw the dark cylinder fall.

She, of course, recognized it–knew it to be a weapon with far more punch than her knotted rope.

And she knew it wasn’t going to hit Medwick. Jenny hadn’t dropped it at the right time. It was much more likely to roll down into the basin and blow Karla to bits from below.

She scrambled out, slipped on the sheer sides, went sprawling back to the bottom. Her heart banged away. Not enough time.

Karla looked up at Kio, and shouted out a word.

***

Kio saw the cylinder too. His cat-mind could even parse Medwick’s words of rage. They were too loud and angry not to hear.

“Give me back my castle!” the Neogah-shifter thundered. “Give me back my heartsphere!”

He ran on instinct. The bomb was going to miss on its current path.

Kio could redirect it.

A flying spring took him into the air, closing the distance to the falling bomb. He plucked it from the air like a feather off a gull, wrapped it in all four paws, and shifted again, into a human with something important in his hands.

“Throw it!” Karla shouted from the basin.

Medwick was high. She was low. There would never be a better shot.

Kio threw the cylinder.

As the explosion of white light whirled around the lightning, amid the thunder, Kio, on the ground with his hands over his head, could only think: that stupid body was good for something after all.

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Ash 2

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Every time Jenny or Griffin tried to angle closer to the castle, a net or a spear or a rock hurled itself at Raven and forced them to retreat. The nearer to the walls they flew, the thicker came the waves of the assault, until their little craft was racing away from whole thickets of swarming weapons.

“We need to start thinking about options!” Griffin yelled at Jenny through his gas-mask.

His equally masked niece glared back at him. “No way in hell are we turning back.”

“I didn’t mean that! I meant that–” a rumble of thunder cut him off for seconds “–we may be the only people we can save.”

Jenny took a second to answer, steering her wing to slash through another flying net. Finally, she nodded. “But we’re waiting until the last possible moment. Until that cloud is on us. Not before.”

“Not before,” Griffin echoed, though his heart filled with fear.

***

There was still a seed pod lying beside the counterweight jug that dangled two of Karla’s heights over the ledge. She hurled it, shattering the stone that her last blow had cracked during their first fight against a Neogah.

The heavier end of the rope ran freely until the knot at the other end stopped it. Karla tugged on her end and nodded tightly without looking at Kio. They would have to climb longhand.

“Tell me what happened here,” she grunted as she hauled herself hand-over-hand up the rope, Kio’s feet pounding against the wall below her.

“What I let happen?” Kio muttered.

Only what I need to know.” It was hard enough not to look at him. Once upon a time she had thought of him as the other part of herself, someone so close she would know his mind without thinking.

How wrong she’d been. Could you ever really know anyone?

Yet however confused and betrayed Karla might feel, she couldn’t bear to listen to the pain in his voice.

“Their leader is that man you saw,” Kio said. “The Rokhshan call him the Benefactor, but his true name is Raptor. He came to me the day after you left. The day I found…found…”

“You found my mom’s letter.” Karla’s throat was dry. Her arms wobbled on the rope. She climbed faster, not yet ready to rise above her anger, to admit, as she had to, that she had screwed up.

Do you ever really know somebody?

“He told me the Harpooneers wanted to attack and shelter from the Ash Cloud, and that they would let the cloud touch the Heartsphere in their rush to get inside. He said he’d come to help me fight them, and that’s why he summoned the others.”

“Wait.” The reservoir ledge was just above, but Karla paused, lost in thought. “Why would it matter if the cloud touched the sphere?”

“According to Raptor,” Kio said venomously, “it will disperse the poison across the entire planet. Killing everybody. And most of the things.”

Karla’s arms burned white-hot. She’d hung still too long. Shaking, she hauled herself over the reservoir ledge, and reflexively flung out an arm to help Kio.

Briefly, his face looked open to the forgiveness she seemed to be offering, but then it hardened again. He knew she wasn’t giving. He clambered up on his own.

“Did he give you any evidence at all? Any proof this would happen?”

“None.” Kio shook out his limbs. “All I know is that he really didn’t want it to happen.”

“Enough to build a castle in the sky to stop it?”

The reservoir square wasn’t the one she remembered. The sickly light from the ash cloud, and the spits of drizzle from the storm, scattered an ethereal green glow over piles of stone and rubble. They must have been left over from the Neogah’s weapon construction blitz. A scrap of gravel toppled into the basin, sending out ripples to join the scales already blown there by the wind.

“He didn’t need to build anything!” Kio shouted.

“Right!” Karla answered. “He got some gullible sap named Rokhshan from the surface to make a whole family who’d do it for him!”

Kio stepped closer. “You can’t hurt me. Not like that. You don’t have to tell me I’m the most gullible sap on this castle.”

His face was that of a boy determined not to cry. Karla thought of the fight ahead of them, of the past they’d left behind, and of the danger they faced. And some fight leaked out of her.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Why not just build a wall? Why a whole castle?”

“The family he chose wouldn’t live there otherwise. This way, he has his interests guarded through the generations.”

“And why not tell the Rokhshan the truth?”

Kio ground his heel onto one of the dark mosaic pictures of his family’s great heroes. “Most likely, if they’d known, they never would have gone along with it.”

Karla imagined what the truth could be.

Then held out a hand to Kio, this time on purpose. “We’ve wasted enough time. If we’re going to save my friends, we have to work together. Truce?”

“Truce.” Kio shook her hand briefly, then stalked past her without looking in her eyes.

***

Raptor and Medwick’s defences ringed the entire castle. Kio had taken note of them as he’d labored around under the Benefactor’s deceptions, calculating and hoping about whether they would be enough to stop the imagined Harpooneer assault. Now, he had to turn that knowledge on its head, figuring out how to get two surface people through a crossfire he now realized was far more than they’d ever needed.

“There’s no way we can get rid of them all,” he told Karla as she fell into step beside him around the reservoir rim. “The Neogah or their defences. They have this place surrounded and bristling with weapons.”

“The City Council thought they were secure too,” Karla said.

“Who?”

“Never mind. Is there a weak spot?”

Kio shook his head. “Not that I’ve seen. But we might be able to create one.”

“Give them a thin spot to punch through?”

“Fore and aft are the strongest-defended. Machine deck and hangar, the best landing strips.”

They reached the edge of the basin. Karla followed him to hide against the forward tower. Behind her eyes, she was rotating a three-dimensional model of the castle, imagining every crenellation.

This was always how it had been: whichever one of them had the most reason to be upset, they never really could be, since they’d always have to come back together to deal with the next crisis. Now, though, she had her surface friends. Kio thought ruefully that she finally had her wish, to find out what they really were together.

The answer wasn’t looking impressive so far.

They each craned their neck around one side of the tower. Down the turreted wall, along bridges and vines to the workshop and hangar below, two Neogah hung, with two more patrolling in the sky. The two on the wall were manning weapons, one a spear-launcher, one a net-thrower. A catapult atop the tower backed them up.

Kio met Karla again at the tower door. “I have an idea. Do you remember our signals?”

“I wouldn’t forget.”

“All right,” he said, hoping it would chip away at the wall of resentment he’d spent seven long days building. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

***

Kio had come to her once with a book in his hand and a rapturous description on his lips about what it was like to conduct a symphony. “You play a whole crowd of people as an instrument,” he’d said. “Imagine if we could do that. Make music from all the people we can see from up here. Or with the entire sky, with the birds and the clouds and the sun…”

Karla had loved the idea. Years later, she had to admit that the way they conducted the reservoir’s water made her feel something similar.

It was still largely the same water they’d gathered out of rainstorms. Karla felt proprietary toward it. She couldn’t deny the swell of pride as she followed its progress through the cracks in the tower she was conducting from within.

Kio’s plan was simple and elegant. Each of the towers had an atmosphere crystal halfway up, maintaining the air pressure that made it possible to breathe on Nashido. In their fight against the first Neogah, they’d figured out the combination of runes that would reverse the effect and hurl air and water out to open sky.

“But what if that happens to two at once?” he’d asked. “Out of order, and temporarily. Where would the water go?”

Kio activated his first, carving sigils into the crystal like they had on that day. Karla watched the water surging into the air. Seconds later, through the hole left by a stone he’d shoved out of the wall, Kio gave her the signal.

She raced to the glowing crystal and completed the reverse rune. At the same time, in his tower, Kio would be breaking the spell he’d just cast.

It worked perfectly. The reservoir water drenched Karla’s tower, helped out by the rush of wind. Damp trickles formed at the edges of her eyeslit. She leapt back as water sprayed through it.

Far more of it flew past than fell in. The Neogah, intent on the ornithopter wheeling at the edge of the storm, didn’t think to look up or behind.

The cascade of water over them may at first have felt like just a bit more harmless rain. They knew the squall couldn’t hurt them, that it was only being truly submerged that could threaten their bodies.

They were still thinking that when the reservoir poured over them, striking the two on the wall first, then the two flying just beyond.

“Haaaaa!” Karla screamed at them through the eyeslit. “This is my castle, you bastards!”

She didn’t stick around to watch them disintegrate, satisfying as that would have been. Instead she dashed down the spiral steps to the bottom floor and rolled the stone disc aside.

Kio met her on the basin rim. “Did we get them?” he asked.

“Four of them!” She grinned. “That was so awesome! Now my friends can land safely.”

“They’re still armed,” Kio said, “and…”

He stopped speaking as a shadow fell over his face.

Something was hovering there. Something vaster and angrier than the Neogah she was used to. This was one, she knew immediately, that had been warped. Twisted by hatred and shame into a beast that could even challenge Raptor.

“Yes?” Medwick’s grind-clack dragon voice growled out. “Do finish the sentence, Lord Rokhshan.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Ash 1

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The ledge outside the Heartsphere had changed. Kio hadn’t been there since he’d raised the mushrooms that had saved Karla’s life.

He hadn’t planned to stop there. His human brain hadn’t thought of any reason Karla would be on the secret ledge, and his brain was in cat form now, much worse at thinking through anything that didn’t involve danger, food, or scratches. But he’d been leaping up ledges and broken stairways, looking for a safe way to the Upper Citadel that didn’t pass the eyes of a roving Neogah, when he saw her.

From the sloping tower roof below the ledge, he could just make out the outline of her body. A cold fear raised his hackles. She was lying on her side, not moving. He sniffed the air, but the wind was so high he couldn’t gain any sense of whether she was alive.

The route was treacherous. From the roof to a crenellation to another, half-crumbled, that collapsed under his paws. He yowled and skidded, planting his claws around the falling stone’s corners. When it hit the roof and slid, he leapt, sinking his claws into an oxygen vine. The vine’s skin yielded, and Kio climbed.

A few feet away from the secret ledge, the vine curved away. Kio scampered up and paused atop it. Karla was lying there, ahead and above, and he still couldn’t see or hear or smell whether she was breathing.

The storm whipped and buffetted him to and fro on the fine. With a brief glance and hiss to aft, he could see the colossal, glittering green wall, drifting closer. The air was already feeling funny, just a little harder to suck in than it should have.

Kio sprang.

His body didn’t clear the ledge. Gripping on with his forepaws, he howled out–

–and his cat-self broke.

He grew. In seconds, when his mind finished expanding, Kio found himself draped over the edge of the platform, face-down in the patch of dirt. He awkwardly shimmied the rest of the way.

Without getting off his knees, he raced to Karla. She was sprawled along a corner of the ledge where the Neogah had hurled her, the wreckage of the Kiobot lying not far off. Seeing her so close to the great fall made Kio suck in his breath. Before even checking her pulse, he made to roll her away from the edge.

I will not throw any more bodies off Nashido. I was done burying people I love ten years ago. I’m not about to start again now.

He fought his rising disgust with himself, fought to keep it from mingling with the Year Zero fear that rushed up in him. Of course he was responsible for her being in this state. He never should have allowed Raptor or his Neogah onto the castle. But if he lay around moping about that, he’d never fix anything.

As he reached out to turn Karla over onto a safe spot, her arm lashed out and caught him around the wrist.

He hardly had time to notice before her eyes were open and she was on him, throwing a punch at his face. It landed between his eyes, blasting sparks across his vision. He reeled back, but her grip stopped him, and she struck him again in the stomach.

The force of the blow on top of the stone already weighing on his gut punched him through despair and out the other side. Something shifted in him.

Karla suddenly found herself holding a hissing, snarling cat in her arms. She yelped, stumbled backwards, and Kio, yowling louder than the storm, saw her step backwards off the ledge by mistake.

No sooner had her foot landed wrong than her form compressed and the raven took her place. Cawing, it rushed at the cat, who slashed with both foreclaws to keep it away. The bird slammed into Kio, bowling him back across the dirt, and he broke his outline again, rolling back into human form.

On the one hand, he deserved this. On the other, they had more important problems.

He grabbed at the bird, heedless of its beak and talons slashing more cuts in his skin–but noticing its body had some cuts of its own. Karla transformed in his hands, and soon her human form was twisting out of his grasp, reaching for his throat.

He planted his feet in the soil to keep her from slamming him against the oxygen vine. “I know what I did!” he shouted. “I’m sorry! Just stop it!”

“Stop what!?” Karla yelled, and swung a fist at his head. He ducked, and they switched places, her against the wall and him the sky. “Can you prove you aren’t endangering my life? When did you start working with the bone dragons?”

“They’re called Neogah!” he shouted, throwing a blow she blocked. “And except for Raptor and Medwick, they can’t even think!”

“So what, they need our help?”

“Quit sneering! You lied to me about the Harpooneers, and you don’t know anything about what’s happened up here!”

“Clearly you don’t either!” Tears welled up in Karla’s eyes as she faced him down. “The Kio I know wouldn’t have let this happen. Did I really know you at all?”

“How can you say that? You’re the one with the secret life!”

“I only ever had one life!” she cried. “Our life! Our promise, together!”

“I broke that promise!”

If Kio was crying himself now, he couldn’t feel it, or didn’t care. He needed her to understand. He’d betrayed himself as much as her–ruined everything in his quest to be a real Rokhshan. What he hadn’t known, until after Raptor had his claws on the castle, until just now even, was that he’d already been real. The Kio he’d been with Karla was the realest he’d ever been. And he’d let them both down.

The fight had left Karla’s limbs, but not her voice. “You don’t get to!”

“I don’t get to what? To be right? Or to ask you for help after I screwed up so badly? I broke it, because I made you leave!”

“You don’t get to give up the promise just because you broke it once!” Karla spoke through clenched teeth. “A promise doesn’t disappear because somebody broke it. That is not how promises work. You never stop being a part of one, no matter how broken it gets.”

Kio’s mouth moved, but no words came out. A peal of thunder roared across the sky. Rain began to soak his skin.

Karla stared at him. He had the sense both of them were struggling to stay human.

Finally, he said, “Help me.”

“With what?”

“To save your friends. The two Harpooneers–”

“They’re not Harpooneers. There aren’t any Harpooneers left. And I’m not ready to forgive you.”

“I don’t need you to be.” Kio’s insides burned with the urge to let his own rage bubble up. He had made mistakes, but did that invalidate his right to be angry about her lie? “But they’re depending on us. They’re stuck in the sky and Raptor is going to shoot them down unless we stop him.”

Her gaze bored into him. For the first time, he noticed she was wearing strange surface-folk clothes under her fur. “How?”

“We know this castle better than anybody. We can knock their defences out if we work together.”

A long moment passed. She could have turned and climbed away, shifted into a raven and flown as far as possible from the Ash Cloud. Instead, she took one look at the advancing wall of glittering green death and nodded tightly.

“Their names are Jenny and Dr. Griffin,” she told him. “Let’s go save their lives.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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Harpooneer 4

No update on Tuesday, I’m sorry: I will be out of wi-fi on the Olympic Peninsula. Check back next Friday for the beginning of Arc 16!

Rain was beginning to lash the roof of the hangar as the Ash Cloud drove the squall line on. Kio stood beside the shattered form of their original clockwork raven, watching the downpour with one eye and Raptor with other.

The Benefactor had destroyed Raven. Calmly, methodically, without a hint of rage, Raptor had taken their hope of escape apart in the most brutal way possible. He would examine a support fixture for several moments, cock his head, then stamp it with his foot in just the right place to tear half a wing off at the seams. It had taken him a minute or two to reduce the skycraft to scrap.

Now the god was kneeling over Kio and Karla’s calendar of days. He massaged one of the deepest gouges with one finger. Kio shivered, though his furs were warm.

“Do you believe my rage has been sated,” he looked up, “Lord Rokhshan?”

“I’m so sorry,” Kio said hurriedly, though he’d lost count of his apologies by now. He just said it, over and over, hoping to salve the wound he’d inflicted on his own life. “I’m sorry, Benefactor, I–”

“Raptor.” The god stood, rising, Kio could swear, to seven feet in height.

“I didn’t mean to jump in front of you. To imply I ever mistrusted you.” I did, he thought, I did and I’d do it again, but I’m afraid you’re going to kill me.

He was fluid, unmoored. His frame had been shattered like Raven’s. As a Rokhshan, what exactly was he without the Benefactor?

As Kio, he knew. But Kio could never survive what was coming.

“Because of what you did, that Harpooneer escaped.” Raptor paced closer, agonizingly slowly. “She is a rogue agent in our castle. If Medwick does not find her in time, she will have access to the Heartsphere. Is this what you wanted, Kio, when you stepped in front of my sword?”

The sword in question was glinting at Raptor’s belt right now. Kio couldn’t take his eyes from it. “I couldn’t control my reaction. I know she’s a traitor, Benefactor, but she was my closest friend–”

My name is Raptor!” the deity screamed, two feet from Kio’s face.

In that moment–with the wind and the shrapnel and the sword and the rain and the words circling his head like angry gulls–things began to become clear to Kio. He felt he had all the time he needed to read through the clues, like he was back in the library poring over one of his books.

First, Karla had arrived alone. At most, one or two others had come with her. Hardly the invasion force from Year Zero, or the one Raptor warned of.

Second, Karla had survived and returned, and the delirious happiness of his one glimpse of her shook everything to its foundations.

Third, Raptor wanted something, and he wasn’t telling Kio what it was. Karla’s great lie was of the past, but Raptor’s was of the future.

Which meant Kio had been betrayed. The question of who had betrayed him was no longer so clear.

In the telescoping moment beneath Raptor’s enraged glare, he saw a universe full of potential Kio Rokhshans. There were Kios that did what he was doing now: standing, listening, obeying, taking abuse because it was the way to survive. They did so forever. And they died without love, without the promises that made life real.

The others–and there were not many, but he could see them all clearly–the others resisted.

“Raptor,” he said, voice quaking, “I want you to tell me the truth.”

***

Karla elbowed Medwick in the gut. With a whoomph, the dragon priest’s arms went limp. Snarling like an animal freed from a trap, Karla surged forward, rolling across the kitchen floor.

Medwick swung the cleaver in a downward arc, forcing Karla to scramble. “If I deem you apologetic enough, Harpooneer,” he said as he yanked it back, “I might only cripple you.”

Karla’s back struck a hard surface that jolted her skeleton. Knowing what it must be, groping above her head, she felt her hand close around a wooden handle. She clambered to her feet, brandishing it, and saw Medwick’s eyes widen as his next cleaver-blow paused.

“I saw you,” she said, pointing the long breadknife at his chest. “On the sky kingdom. Kio told me about you. He said you lied to him.”

“He had not yet seen the truth!” Medwick sliced at her. She only just managed to dodge out of the way.

“I sharpened this thing myself a couple days before I left. I did it right. I could cut your digits off if I wanted to, so you should be way more careful than you’re being.”

“I do not fear you!”

Medwick swiped with the cleaver again and again, driving Karla back into the corner of the kitchen. Unable to dodge–hardly able to breathe–she brought the knife up to block his blows. With her left hand, she grabbed a heavy wooden spoon and threw it at his head.

He grunted and covered his face. Karla dove through the split-second opening and whirled around, trapping him this time, her back to the door.

She hadn’t been bluffing. The bread knife was honed to a razor’s edge.

“I want to know what’s happening,” she demanded. “You’re with these dragons. What do they want?”

“They? Nothing.” Medwick tried a smirk. It didn’t quite work on his statue-stone face. “They are lost creatures who can’t fathom what they want. The deformed, blind, idiot children of the sky.”

“And you’re training them as attack dogs?” He slashed. She leapt back, jabbed at him, dodged as they feinted at each other.

“You should rather ask,” Medwick blustered, “what it is the Benefactor wants.”

***

“My whole family knew you,” Kio challenged Raptor, his finger outstretched like a magic sword to drive back the god. “They told tales of you, worshipped you. Obeyed your commandments to the letter. I was taught them so well I was actually afraid to enter the Heartsphere, even when the alternative was choking to death.”

Raptor had retreated to the calendar stones. His face betrayed nothing. “I gave the Rokhshan their fortune because I believed they would be receptive to my teachings,” he said. “I haven’t been wrong yet. Even you can be salvaged, with time, and re-education.”

“No!” Kio shouted. A thunderclap from above punctuated the exclamation. “No more education. I’ve spent enough time in the library these past few days to educate myself. If only I hadn’t ignored so many signs…”

“Lord Rokhshan,” Raptor’s voice was soft and merciful, “do not say something you cannot take back.”

That moment, Kio later understood, was when he could have turned back. This instance, this thunderclap in time, was where his luck forked into two paths.

There was safety along one of the paths. But if there was a core to the nature of Kio Rokhshan, it was the desire to understand.

“I got distracted by the Neogah. But I researched what I wanted to know. Bene–Raptor, in every book written by a Rokhshan on Nashido, your warning about the Ash Cloud comes up. It’s poison, and the Heartsphere will disperse it across the entire world.”

“I’m proud of you. I never wished you to take my words at face value.”

“But,” Kio pressed on, “none of the other sources corroborate it. The books written on sky kingdoms theorize about the nature of the Heartsphere, but they admit to there being no proof of that story.”

Raptor’s brow deepened. Kio blurted out, “That’s all it is. A story. You needed the Rokhshan to believe it.”

The tip of Raptor’s sword screeched slowly across the stone, making an eerie harmony with the howling wind. “There is nothing, my lord, that I have ever needed the Rokhshan to do that I have not been able to do myself. I founded your house, my lord, because it was convenient.”

“Convenient?” Kio echoed stupidly. He had suddenly remembered that Raptor was blocking the only exit. And that he was far more powerful than Kio could ever hope to be. What cat had ever slayed a dragon?

“Go on.” The god smiled, but the disarming warmth was gone from his grin. “Finish. What do you suspect? What have you read, in those books of yours?”

“I…” Summon your courage, damn it. “You ordered us never to enter the Heartsphere. You insisted it would amplify the Ash Cloud.”

Would this next be the last sentence he ever spoke? “I think you want to hoard the shapeshifting power for yourself. I think you want to be the only one who can change.”

For a second, he thought he’d struck the heart of the matter. Then Raptor’s face contorted. An expression that was almost, but not quite, entirely inhuman.

In that twist of features, Kio saw a depth of rage he’d only begun to fathom. And he knew he was still scratching at the surface of the Benefactor’s anger.

He knew one thing, though. He wasn’t going to let it point at Karla anymore.

“It hurts me to have to do this, Kio.” Raptor strode forward, raising the sword. “I had such high hopes for you.”

The blade struck down through the air where Kio’s head had been moments ago. That head was now much lower to the ground, covered in downy black fur, speeding toward the stairs.

The feline body of Kio Rokhshan ran like lightning on the edge of a wave. The last thing he heard, as his senses ran high, was Raptor bellowing to the entire sky: “Find him!

***

Medwick was muttering to himself now, even as he slashed at Karla. “Raptor wants what everyone wants,” he murmured, his priestly tone muffled at the edges. “Raptor wants what everyone has. Raptor wants the world. Raptor wants a world.”

“Shut up!”

Karla tried to land a blow to his jaw, but his head snapped back too quickly. He was on her again, cutting, hacking, nicking her skin. She threw up a forearm as she tumbled down, and suddenly he was pressing his blade toward her face, ready to cut, to disfigure.

She’d landed on the floor. Unsure how. All her being was now in her forearm, fighting to keep the cleaver up.

“Help me,” she begged of Medwick. “Help me save Rust Town with the Heartsphere. Help the Benefactor become what he’s always wanted to be. Help him be a god to more than just one boy.”

“A beautiful story,” the priest replied. “But you have said things you must never say.”

Karla rolled sideways, destabilizing Medwick just enough that the cleaver landed blade-first in the floor and hung there quivering. But as she crawled toward the door, the heavy weight of a frying pan crashed onto the back of her skull–the sun exploded–and her world fell into black silence.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Harpooneer 3

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Banking hard to stay on top of the wind, Griffin kept himself and Jenny swinging their wide arc around Nashido. The nearer they got to the green wall, the more intense the wind became.

A dark projectile hurtled along a vector far ahead of them, and Jenny reacted first, yanking up on the pilot bar and sending them into a hard brake. Griffin’s stomach dropped, fearing they would stall–but with the air changed to its roots by the onrushing Ash Cloud, it didn’t seem like they even could lose altitude.

But the bank forced them left, closer to the castle. Close now to the battlements, Griffin could see levers springing up. Scattered rocks arced toward them.

“Starboard!” he yelled.

“Toward the Cloud?” Jenny mouthed back.

“No time to vote! Just go!”

Two of the rocks dropped to port. The third slammed into Raven’s spine. It was a small chunk of masonry, but it bounced and skittered and shook Griffin’s teeth in his gums.

Raven felt creaky from the hit. She hadn’t been designed to take impacts.

“Away!” he told Jenny, trying to turn farther starboard.

She resisted. “We can’t! Everyone needs us!”

“We’re not going to help them if we get shot down!”

He leaned right. She leaned left.

Another pair of spears whistled past, one over their nose, one under their tail lifter.

Dr. Edward Griffin’s entire life pressed between them. He saw all the things he’d given up, all the choices he’d never made. All the times he’d waited and sat back because prudence dictated he should find out more. Get a better handle on the situation. See what changed.

He thought of Rose, with her cropped copper-colored hair and smile that could distract a bear long enough for her to set its broken arm. And he thought of how he might be about to lose her.

And he remembered he had fought a bandit with a knife last week.

“Fine, damn you,” he cried. “Masks on.”

The spears zipped on toward the ocean. His niece yanked the mask from her belt and strapped it tightly to her face, glowing beneath it with pride and resolve. He strapped his on a second later.

Whoever was launching the spears lit the next ones ablaze. A swarm of fireballs pelted Raven. One scraped the right wing, igniting briefly–but in the damp air the fire couldn’t catch.

Griffin and Jenny aimed together toward the narrowing space between Nashido and the Ash Cloud. Every battlement of the castle armed against them. They kicked away rocks, swerved to avoid fire spears, dove as had as they could to dodge a chain sweeping lengthwise across the sky. A net tangled itself in their wings, locking them for a terrifying second, but Jenny yanked the knife from Griffin’s belt and cut them free.

Lightning flashed. For a second, high above him, Dr. Griffin thought he saw the shapes of massive kingdoms converging on Nashido, like great flying beasts swooping in for the kill.

“Ash Cloud starboard!” Jenny screamed.

The air in Griffin’s mask turned sour. They were shooting down a slim corridor now, the castle looming on one side, the wall of green advancing on the other. The Ash Cloud did not hurry.

It has all the time it wants, Dr. Griffin thought deliriously. All the time in the world.

The turrets on the castle towers spun and locked onto them again. Griffin shared a look with Jenny, its meaning clear. Whether or not they were flying the greatest skycraft ever built–and they were–they couldn’t survive much longer in the air. They’d have to assault Nashido and force a landing, or plummet to the freezing sea below.

***

Mere steps along the roof, Karla backpedaled as bone dragons lurched upward to surround her. First one, right in her path, then two more to cut her off from the rear and the skyward side.

The one in front of her roared in her face. She roared back, rubbing her throat raw.

“I know this castle,” she bellowed, “better than you do!”

She faked toward the ledge–could leap if she needed, probably transform by the time she hit the ocean–then whipped toward the wall of gears and vines, unbound hair flowing behind her in the rumbling wind. The bone dragon in the center dove, and its beak slammed into the stone brick, two inches left of where Karla had leapt to grasp onto an oxygen vine with one hand and a pulley-rope with the other.

The first dragon feinted sideways. Skimming around the tower, it folded its wings and dove. Karla clambered faster, hand over hand, foot to foot–but the dragon was strafing along the wall. Its claws gouged deep ruts in the side of the Outer Citadel.

Karla stopped climbing and waited. One hand and one foot at a time, she inched backward, carrying the rope with her. She had no knife to cut it loose, no seed-pods to hurl at its counterweight.

But she had her own weight.

The claws rapped against the stone, rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. The other bone dragons had pulled off and were circling, watching for their turn to pick the meat off her bones.

Karla watched them back.

The dragon’s foretalon shattered the solarium window. Karla sprang off the wall.

Gravity took her instantly. She swung like a pendulum toward the dragon’s skull. The fires in its eyes blazed from orange to green, flaring beyond the sockets.

She decided it was a sign of fear.

She hit the dragon’s skull feet-first, shaking her own bones. The dragon hardly felt it. But that meant it didn’t stop–kept plowing around the tower as Karla flung the rope aside and hurled herself toward the window.

Inside on the solar floor, she landed and rolled. Winced as the broken glass sliced open more of her skin, spattering drops of bright blood across the faded carpet. None of them stuck, and that was enough.

Besides, she couldn’t stop. The claws of one dragon and the tangled leg mass of another had shoved through the window. Legs and claws and wings and teeth burst in through window after window, exploding the glass panes in scatterings of lightning-struck stars.

Karla ran. This was still her home. There was a ladder at the far wall, opening up into the kitchen–or if she had to, the Inner-Citadel antechamber to the Heartsphere. All she had to do was cross the ledge and there would be options.

At the top of the ladder, she shifted the trapdoor back in place, the storm winds buffeting her again. Steps here would lead up to the kitchen, and then…

Stone-like arms, human arms, wrapped around her neck, smashing her back against the stairwell. Karla gagged. Lights exploded in her eyes.

A bone dragon? No, it had come out of the Inner Citadel, out of where a dragon could never fit–out of which a new human had just come. In his other hand he held the kitchen’s heaviest cleaver.

Karla bucked and writhed. Every direction of her range of motion was pinned.

“Your friends in the sky are done for, Harpooneer,” Medwick hissed in her ear. “But they’ll see you dead first.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.